Close-Up: Why Nabs is needed now more than ever before

Zoe Osmond, the Nabs chief executive, reveals her plans to make the advertising charity more relevant, John Tylee writes.

She may have been the Nabs chief executive for just six months, but Zoe Osmond has already heard just about every cheap shot ever made about one of adland's most familiar but still much misunderstood institutions.

According to one sceptic, Nabs is for people "who can't afford to put petrol in their Porsches". According to another, Nabs bails out those who "can't afford to pay their second mortgages".

It's complete tosh, of course, but the jibes are emblematic of a climate of cynicism that's built up around Nabs as a body that only helps those who have generously helped themselves during the good times and haven't the faintest idea of what hard times really mean.

The wave of redundancies across the industry has largely put a stop to such nonsense and to the perception that calling the Nabs helpline is an admission of failure.

Yet old myths die hard and - along with a widespread ignorance about what Nabs actually does -makes fundraising, already problematic in the current economic climate, even more difficult.

Add to that the fact that the UK agency landscape undergoes constant change, that 45 per cent of the industry workforce is under 30 - and that much of that workforce doesn't understand Nabs' relevance or its purpose - and the true scale of the challenge becomes clear.

It's against this background that Osmond this month sets out Nabs' future plans. It's not so much a re-launch, more a commitment to trumpet what it has to offer. It's all part of her plan to present Nabs not just as a charity that may be the last resort for the industry's unfortunate minority (although that will remain an important part of its work) but as an organisation that's there for all those in the industry, whatever their needs.

The extent of the task ahead was highlighted in research carried out among 1,400 industry staffers. The survey recorded massive awareness of Nabs but very little understanding of what it offered.

When asked what they'd like Nabs to be providing, services such as career and employment advice and training were high on most respondents' agenda. The fact that Nabs already provides such things is indicative of how much more shouting it has to do. Indeed, just 12 per cent of the industry takes advantage of Nabs' free services on issues such as employment law and career development.

"It's not about repositioning, it's about re-engagement," Osmond declares. "We've failed to communicate with people."

In a sense, Osmond is pushing Nabs into the future by returning it to its roots as the National Advertising Benevolent Society. She argues that there's an important distinction between a charity that exists to help those in need who are not related to the giver, and a benevolent society that is defined as a body of people joining together for a common financial or social purpose.

"If people want to give £5 to Save the Children, then they should give it," Osmond says. "But if they've another £5 that would help those within their own industry in all sorts of different ways, we hope they'll do that too."

Nabs' new strategy is being heralded by the arrival of a more user-friendly website, which will go live this month and will show visitors more clearly what the organisation does, as well as allowing them to donate online.

The more people know about what Nabs is about, the more predisposed they'll be to support it financially, Osmond says. She's also about to launch a corporate sponsorship programme entitling companies to discounts for Nabs events in return for their ongoing financial support.

At the same time, Nabs' ambition to be all things to all people is being articulated in a new trade press campaign that will also run on digital poster sites in 13 London Underground stations.

Created by Rainey Kelly Campbell Roalfe/Y&R, it features the work of the cartoonist Simon Spilsbury and the strapline: "Nabs. For everyone in the world of advertising." It got the nod over another that proclaimed: "We're there for the good, the bad and when it gets ugly."

The tone of the campaign is intended to underline the fact that Nabs and the IPA, while complementary, don't share the same agenda. "The IPA is an employer organisation," Osmond explains. "Our focus is very much on the employee."

The new-look Nabs aims to balance its existing popular sporting programme - particularly important for connecting with young people and which is about to be enhanced with more events - with more initiatives that will be relevant for today's industry.

A recent event at which Nick Bampton, the Nabs chairman, Stephen Woodford, its president, and Kerry Glazer, the AAR chief executive, discussed dealing with change was the first in a series of Forward Thinking Forums. And there will be more "An audience with ..." type evenings after Adam Crozier, ITV's chief executive, takes the stage on 12 October.

Fresh impetus is also being put behind the Fast Forward initiative, now in its tenth year, at which almost 80 of the industry's best young brains receive training and guidance from a range of leading figures. Until now, the delegate list has been dominated by agencies but Nabs says it plans to encourage media owners to become more involved too.

It's all part of what Osmond calls "instilling a greater sense of community in our business" by adding to or augmenting existing offerings. "I see our task as providing unlimited advice and support to people through every step of their career," she says.

One idea is to provide young staffers with more chances to meet others of similar ages from other disciplines. "This happens at senior level but the opportunities for juniors to do this are very limited," Osmond says.

Another avenue being explored is how the Nabs Helpline - shortly to be rechristened the Advice Line - could work more closely with Employee Assistance Programmes. These are confidential helplines intended to help staff deal with personal problems that might adversely affect their work performance.

"These helplines are operated by outside companies whose people have no knowledge of the industry," Osmond explains. "We're not saying agencies should stop their EAPs but if they are thinking of establishing one, they might want to look at how we do it."

On this, as on many other issues, Nabs has got to stop whispering and start raising its voice, Osmond contends: "We have to feel proud of what we do - and make people in the industry feel proud of us."


- Nabs was founded in 1913 by newspaper executives worried about an impending war and what might happen to their dependents if they were forced to fight in it.

- Nabs needs £2.1 million a year to maintain its services, but only 20 per cent of the industry supports it financially. It operates with a staff of just 16.

- Nabs spends £1.4 million a year on financial grants, beneficiary support, career coaching, workshops and its helpline.

- The helpline dealt with 8,500 calls last year. Almost 40 per cent of them were about redundancy. Twenty per cent wanted career advice.

- The Big Bash is Nabs' biggest annual fundraiser, generating more than £1 million a time. The eighth Big Bash is on 24 March next year.

- One of Nabs' most popular schemes is a flatshare service for graduates new to the London scene.

- October has been designated Nabs month, with awareness and money-raising events organised around the industry.